Tag Archives: Extinction

Were Wild Parrot Once Native to Ohio?

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Once native to Ohio, with some sightings in Northwest Ohio

The answer might surprise you. Because the answer, according to some accounts, is -yes. The bird in question was the Carolina Parrot or parakeet(Conuropsis carolinensis), a -tropical looking bird, about the size of a robin with colorful green, yellow and orange plumage and a long sweeping tail that once flourished throughout eastern North America. Sadly, this grand bird is now extinct. The very last survivor in captivity was named Incas and died in an aviary at the Cincinnati Zoo, one hundred years ago in February of 1918, just months after his mate, Lady Jane, had passed away. It was said that Incas died of loneliness. Ironically, he died in the very same aviary cage that also housed the last Passenger pigeon, Martha, which died in 1914.  Prior to the demise of the Carolina Parrot, this brightly feathered creature populated the skies of the Southern U.S. and parts of the Midwest and Northeast in numbers that were startling and loathsome to the early settlers who viewed the bird largely as a gregarious pest. The parrots were known to decimate farmers’ crops and strip orchards of fruit. The range of this parrot was wide, with sightings from Florida and Georgia, north to New England and New York, and west to Colorado and Texas. The first sightings were in the early 1600’s in the southern states where they were most dominant. The last official sightings though took place in the 1920’s, although, unconfirmed sightings also were reported in the 1930’s.

What caused these beautiful birds to die off? Kevin Burgio, a professor of Ecology with the University of Connecticut has studied the Carolina Parakeet for years. He writes that it’s a mystery. “Scientists don’t know what really drove these parakeets to extinction. Some thought it was habitat loss. Some thought it was hunting and trapping. Some thought disease. A few even thought it was competition with non-native honey bees for tree cavities, where the parakeets would roost and nest.”

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Museum Specimen Carolina Parakeet

All we know is they are gone, although we do know where they lived or were spotted over the years. And sometimes when they showed up in flocks of more than several hundreds, their presence was unsettling. In 1780, in upstate New York, a story is told that when a large flock of these aggressive, colorful and noisy birds swooped into one rural Dutch village, the townspeople reacted with fear. They had never witnessed anything like it, and thought it was a sign that the end of the world was nigh. The fear of the birds stayed with the town for years.

In Ohio, they also made people uncomfortable. In a story from a 1924 Toledo News Bee, it was conveyed as to how a flock flew over the state capital n Columbus in 1862. At least 25 of the birds swooped out of the sky across the treetops, noisy and screaming, with the brilliant colors flashing in the morning sun, they provided a rare spectacle, but also startled a group of students who took fright at the menacing flock. That Columbus sighting in July of 1862 was, according the article, the last sighting of the birds in Ohio.

The most common region where the parrots were seen in Ohio was reportedly in the thick forests around Cincinnati. Early pioneers wrote that, at times, the trees were filled with the shrieking hordes. Sycamore trees were their favorite habitat as they were fond of sycamore seeds and cockle-burr seeds as a regular diet staple. Ornithologists have speculated that the birds might have been poisonous, referencing some reports that squirrels that ate their flesh would die. There is really little known about these iconic birds. Research was limited during the time they were abundant in the United States, and it was only after they became extinct that scientist have begun a more focused investigation as to the origins, habitat, breeding, and historical accounts of what was probably the most exotic bird in our history.

So were any of these Carolina parakeets a part of Toledo’s natural history? Perhaps. James Audubon wrote of a sighting in 1806, of a flock of the parrots at the mouth of the Maumee River and Lake Erie. The source of that sighting though has not been confirmed and some scientists are unconvinced that Audubon got it right. Another sighting was reported in 1903, a few miles south of Sandusky as a resident said a parrot would come to feed in his orchard. Again, this report remains as anecdotal evidence only. There were other reports that were more convincing of the birds being seen in areas north of Cincinnati. And its speculated by some researchers that the Carolina Parakeet was probably a rare sight near Cincinnati by the 1840’s. Without more empirical data, however, the haze of time obscures the past and leaves little more than speculation. We may never know for sure if this beautiful parrot found its way to Northwest Ohio. But considering the verdant and rich landscape of heavily timbered swamps and marshes that existed here in this fertile womb of life, it is probably not wild speculation to at least imagine that those green and yellow wings once danced against the sunlight in the skies and the screaming voices of the Carolina Parakeet once echoed in the deep woods of the Great Black Swamp.

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Filed under Famous Animals of Northwest Ohio, Lake Erie